Consultant ties housing, new revenue

Officials consider 4 scenarios while drafting General Plan

`It's overly simplistic'

Rapid construction worries those who support slow growth

June 25, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

It's not a popular view in Howard County, but a consultant hired to estimate the effects of growth on the county treasury over the next 20 years says new homes will pay more in tax revenues than new jobs, and the faster those homes go up, the more taxes they'll produce.

The fiscal study by Tischler and Associates Inc. looked at four possible scenarios for growth as part of the county's effort to write a new General Plan - a guide to help map the future. Paul S. Tischler presented the first phase of his $90,000 report to the council last week.

These next two decades will see a momentous shift in the county's development, officials say - the end of 35 years of fast growth - as Howard uses up all the large parcels of development land, and thousands more residents pass into the "senior citizen" category.

Tischler argues that new growth pays for itself under any of the scenarios. Because new homes in Howard County are increasingly expensive, the property and income taxes they produce will pay for any services those new residents will need. And because residentially generated taxes account for 80 percent of the county's revenues, they are more important than commercial or industrial property taxes.

Of the four scenarios in the report, the one in which the most new homes are built most quickly will produce the most revenue - an average of $9.1 million a year.

Phase two of Tischler's report - which will address other aspects of growth, such as housing the county's growing senior population, the image of older neighborhoods, replacing old infrastructure and the rising values of ever-more scarce land - is due in August. The council will debate the draft General Plan during the summer, and a bill to adopt it into law is to be introduced in September.

The first-phase conclusions, predictably, aren't popular with slow-growth advocates, who also complained that they haven't seen the report.

Peter Oswald, a member of the county's General Plan Task Force that met through March, said his group never got a chance to see the report, but only heard about it in advance. "Building slower makes more sense to me," he said, because it gives the county more time to build schools and roads. The risk of problems is higher with faster development, he said.

Oswald is among a group of residents from North Laurel and Fulton fighting to slow construction of two large mixed-use developments in the county's southeastern quadrant.

Gregory K. Fries, chairman of the Southern Howard County Land Use Committee, which is trying to stop a proposed 1,200-home mixed-use development on a turkey farm in Fulton, said he found the Tischler firm's report for the 1990 General Plan "shortsighted" and full of false assumptions.

"It's mind-boggling to believe that if you build more faster, that's going to be a benefit," he said. "I've heard that story too many times."

The scenarios in the report are four different forecasts of residential and commercial growth that vary the number of new residents and jobs, and the speed at which those numbers likely will be reached.

They range from predictions of 25 percent to 33 percent in population growth, from 36 percent to 48 percent in new housing units, and from 36 percent to 73 percent more jobs over the 20 years.

The Modified General Plan scenario is the one Tischler says will produce the most revenue - largely because more of the new, expensive homes would be built by 2015 - sooner than under the other scenarios.

By contrast, the Slow Population/High Employment scenario predicts double the number of new jobs in 20 years, but would produce less revenue because construction of new homes would be spread out over a greater number of years, and the jobs would require vastly higher amounts to be spent on highway and transportation improvements.

Another scenario is labeled the 1990s Trend, while the fourth is called Slow Population/General Plan Employment.

The report and the discussion of it were filled with cautionary comments.

"This is not reality. It's an approximation of reality," Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, cautioned the council. The report is valuable, however, he said, "because you want to see what the impact of decisions about growth are."

Tischler and county planning officials also noted that new growth will not pay for new services to the existing county population. Lowering school class sizes countywide, for example, would cost far more than the $9 million a year the new homes would produce.

Tischler also cautioned that money isn't everything, and that the county also should take into account less tangible matters, such as the environment, affordable housing and the quality of life.

But the Bethesda-based consultant argued that expensive new homes would provide more new money than thousands of new jobs - because jobs result in clogged roads and millions of dollars spent on highway projects.

Council members and others have their doubts.

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